Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Ladybug's Story (Sermon for RH evening 5773)

 My dear Lady Bug,” said the Ant, “surely you have already heard my account of those events.”

Before Lady Bug could reply, Grasshopper interrupted, “Yeah, thanks to Aesop, pretty much everyone knows your account.  Pixar made a movie of your version, with yours truly as the bad guy who gets eaten in the end!”

“Patience, Grasshopper,” replied the unflappable Lady Bug.  “Please wait your turn.”  Turning back to Ant, she smiled reassuringly and said, “It is always good to share your story.  Go on now, let’s hear it.

OK,” Ant began:

Every day, all summer long, my sisters and I left our lovely meadow at first light.  Avoiding all distractions, we hastened to the far away wheat field.  When we finally arrived, each of us would hoist a heavy kernel of grain over our heads, and lug it back to the colony, where we carefully stowed it away in the communal storeroom.  Then, without a rest, we’d head straight back to the farm to retrieve another hefty load. So it would go, from dawn until dusk, from forest to field, until we collapsed into sleep—just to wake early the next morning and do it all again and again and again.  This was the entire life we knew.  And it was very arduous.  But it was also deeply satisfying, for we had been taught since birth that our hard labor would sustain the community through the hungry days ahead. To work today is to eat tomorrow. 

“I understand,” said Lady Bug.  “The power of planning.  The purpose-driven life.  What happened next?”

“Well,” replied Ant, peeking nervously over at Grasshopper, “then he showed up and started to mock us.”

“Hey!” objected Grasshopper, “that’s not how it happened!”

“Patience,” Lady Bug counseled again.  “I promise, you will get your chance.  For now, just listen.  Ant—can you try to choose your words a bit more carefully?  No need to provoke Grasshopper.  Please continue.”

As I was saying. . . ” Ant went on:

One late summer morning, as we dutifully made our way to work, Grasshopper lay in wait.  It turns out, he’d been watching us for weeks.  He sat on a stump, teasing us, laughing at our single-minded devotion to our calling.  “What is wrong with you ants?” he chortled.  “Why do you work so hard?  Relax.  Enjoy my beautiful singing.  Summer is here.  The days are bright and golden.  Why waste the sunshine on such terrible toil?”

“Grasshopper,” we replied, “to labor today is to eat tomorrow.  Consider the future and plan ahead.  Prepare for winter before it comes.”

But he would not listen to us.

So we tried to ignore him.  Yet the more we focused on our labor, the louder he laughed and taunted us.  “What foolhardy creatures you are!” he chanted.  “Stop working and dance with me.  Set aside your silly burdens. Sing and celebrate!”

And so it went, for the rest of the summer.  We toiled silently while Grasshopper teased us, warbling away the days and weeks and months.

Well, as is the course of this fraught and fragile world, summer faded into fall, then fall darkened and diminished into winter.  Now the sun was hardly to be seen.  The meadow lay bare and grey.  Icy cold gripped the land, the snows began to fall.

And Grasshopper stopped singing. 

We hunkered down in our underground home, where we did not see or hear of him for the longest time.  Then, one day, he arrived at our door, begging for food.  He looked so gaunt and grim that, at first, we hardly recognized him.  And yet, even then, as desperate and emaciated as he appeared, he remained haughty and full of hubris.  Somehow, he had learned nothing from his woes.  “Feed and shelter me,” he insisted.  “I will sing and warm myself by your fire, while you fetch up a feast from that well-stocked pantry of yours!”

After conferring together, we unanimously decided to show Grasshopper some tough love.  How else would he learn the danger of indolence, the importance of planning and preparation?

So I looked him straight in the eye—as much as any ant can look a grasshopper straight in the eye—and I laid down the law of the forest: “All summer long, we toiled while you sang and danced.  You cackled at our concerns.  We told you then: ‘To work today is to eat tomorrow.  Prepare for winter before it comes.’  But you refused to heed our warnings.  Now the winter is upon us and you must pay the price for your idle lack of foresight. Find somewhere else to sing, grasshopper! There is no warmth or food for you here!

And then we shut our door.

At this, Lady Bug nodded knowingly. “Tough love, indeed,” she said to the Ant.  “Thank you for sharing your story.  I know this tale, and its moral, very well.  I grew up with it, and it is at the heart of my own tradition (for in addition to being a skilled therapist, she was also an ordained rabbi.) Dear Ant—what could be more Jewish than worrying about the future?   Always consider tomorrow today.  Do you know that the book of Proverbs taught this well before Aesop?  As King Solomon advised: You who are lazy—learn from the ant!  Consider her ways and be wise.  She gathers provisions all summer, so that she may eat come harvest time.

To which the Midrash adds: If one does not plow in the summer, what will one eat in the winter?

“Amen!” said Ant.  “Thank you, King Solomon.”

Lady Bug continued: “How deep-rooted is this path of providential planning!  I think it is hard-wired into you ants—and most of the rest of us, too.  It is no accident that Ant’s story is so well known, for it is, in fact, the way of the West, a foundation of our culture.  Like Joseph storing up food in Egypt, we employ our foresight to control our fate.  And surely there is much to be said for this approach.  Careful planning and preparation really can help us create a better world for ourselves and our children. 

But enough from me, already! Grasshopper, you have shown admirable patience and restraint.  Now your time has come.  Please, share your version of those events.”

“Thank you,” Grasshopper replied:

In the beginning, I was just like the ants.  I, too, was schooled to live with constant regard for the future.  As a young grasshopper, I spent all of my waking hours foraging and storing food.  But as I grew, I felt a nagging sense of discontent.   It struck me: no matter how much I accumulated, I would never be happy. One simply cannot be prepared enough; for all of our planning, life will always be riddled with uncertainty.  Meanwhile, I was so busy worrying about tomorrow, I was unable to enjoy today.  I was so preoccupied with “doing”, I had forgotten how to just “be.”  I knew something was wrong when I found myself unable to relish the golden beauty of a summer’s day.

So I embraced a serious spiritual practice.  I found myself a teacher.  I listened and observed and meditated and, ever-so-slowly, I learned to savor the bloom of the present moment. When I fall back into my old habit of stressing over the future—which still happens very often—I pause, focus on my breathing, and repeat the mantra my teacher taught to concentrate my energy on the here and now: “Wherever you go, there you are.”

None of this was easy for me. My spiritual practice did not come naturally. I still fail constantly.  But it did help me to become a more contented Grasshopper.  After years of mute toil, I found my voice.  I discovered that by running the tip of one wing over the bottom of the other, I could sing.  I basked in the blessing of this gift!  Now I could fill the world with music.  And so, with the warmth of the sun on my wings, I sang my simple hymn of praise: “This is it.  This is it.  This is it.”

Sometimes I would spy the ants, busily living my former life.  I never bothered them.  I figured that in time, they, too, might change their ways.  I had no desire to persuade or interfere.  I much preferred to watch compassionately, from behind a stump or tuft of grass, safely out of sight.

But everything shifted when I became a witness to disaster.

As usual, I was whistling quietly, on my own, as the ants filed en masse toward the wheat field.  Then, from out of nowhere, a boy jumped onto the path, and started stomping violently on the ant colony.  I watched helplessly as his boot heels wrought their terrible carnage.  Legions of innocent ants died, slaughtered arbitrarily for this boy’s cruel pleasure.  For the rest of the day, I wept.  Then, the next morning, I resolved to share my message with the surviving ants and anyone else who would listen. 

“Live for today!” I pleaded.  Celebrate the moment, for it is all that we can know.  Laugh! Dance!  Sing with me!

But no one paid any attention.  The ants’ response to the catastrophe was to redouble their labors.

“And we were right,” interjected the Ant.  “Calamity does not change this reality.  Even in the aftermath of tragedy, one must carefully plan for the future—all the more so.”

“Now it is your turn to be patient,” Lady Bug replied.  “Grasshopper has listened to your story.  Please listen now to the end of his.”

Grasshopper continued:

I would not be swayed.  I intensified my campaign to enlighten the ants—to no avail.  Finally, I realized how ridiculous I’d become.  The irony was so obvious: I was trying to will away willfulness, to impose non-doing.  My desire to teach the ants how to live in the moment was taking me out of it.

So I stopped arguing with them.  I turned to a new approach.  I took up to the path of paradox.  I waited patiently until winter.  Then, on the coldest, darkest day of the year, I disguised myself as famished beggar and knocked on their door.  I hoped that by appealing to their sense of compassion, I might rouse their souls.  But once again, I failed. 

Lady Bug, what can I do?  I remain committed my spiritual practice.  I still sing, “This is it!  This is it!”  And when my soul is troubled, I continue to tell myself, “Wherever you go, there you are.”  These truths liberated me; I long to share them with the world.  So why won’t anyone listen?

With great deliberation, Lady Bug nodded at Grasshopper and said, “Thank you for sharing your story.  It is less renowned than Ant’s, but I know your tale as well.  I have lived it, for it, too, is at the heart of my Jewish tradition.   Ecclesiastes preaches: ‘God makes everything beautiful in its time.  There is nothing better than to enjoy the moment and take pleasure as long as we live.’

And the Psalmist proclaims: Zeh ha yom asah adonai, nagillah v’nis’michah bo
‘This is the day that God has made.  Let us rejoice and be glad in it.’

Grasshopper, yours is the Eastern way—but some of us in the West have also drunk of its sagacity.    A wise man, Father Henri Nouwen taught:  ‘My whole life, I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted, until I discovered that my interruptions were my work.’”

“’My interruptions were my work. . .’ I like that,” said Grasshopper.

“Yes,” replied Lady Bug.  “Me, too.  To be mindful of the moment is to waken to the beauty of God’s creation.  This is a gateway to gratitude and conscious living.  You have chosen this path, and it is good.”

With that, Lady Bug settled into a long silence.  As the minutes passed and the stillness deepened, Ant and Grasshopper both became visibly uncomfortable. Before entering this mediation, each had agreed to abide by Lady Bug’s decision.  Now they anxiously awaited her judgment.  It was time for her to deliver a verdict, to determine which version of the story told the truth.

Finally, at long last, she broke her silence:

“Ant,” she said, “You are right.  One must carefully consider the future.”
“And Grasshopper,” she continued, “You are also right.  One must be ever mindful of the present moment.”

Ant and Grasshopper both looked at Lady Bug, puzzled and a little displeased.

Grasshopper groaned: “How can each of us be right?  We have opposing stories—they cannot both be true!”

To which Ant added, now echoing her adversary: “Lady Bug, your words make no logical sense.  You must decide between our accounts.  That is what we brought you here to do!”
“My friends,” replied Lady Bug, “when I consented to arbitrate your dispute, I told you very clearly that I would do so on the basis of my knowledge and experience as a rabbi, and you agreed to this.  Well, my Jewish tradition embraces opposites and contradictory truths.  Your notions of right and wrong, of ‘either/or’ may suffice for simple math, but not for life.  Life is about complexity and paradox, about ‘both/and’.  I will not decide between your stories, because I believe, with all my heart, that we need both of them.  As the Talmud teaches: ‘Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayyim—Both sides speak the words of the living God.’”

“Ant, as I said earlier, yours is the way of the West—and Grasshopper, yours is of the East.  But my Jewish path is of the land of Israel, which sits at the crossroads of East and West and draws liberally from each of these great wisdom streams.”

“And so my message to both of you is simple to say, though difficult to do: dwell in a constantly shifting, dynamic balance.   Believe fervently in your own story—and know that the opposing tale is no less true.  Acknowledge the way of the other and make it part of your own. Inhabit both truths, and learn and live in each, according to the need of the moment.

Ant: Keep reminding us to plan and prepare.  But also take some time to sit and sing.

Grasshopper: Continue to rejoice in the day.  But don’t forget to envision and work for a better world.

My friends, each of you has an extraordinary gift, to give and to receive.  Share those gifts with one another, with generosity and openness.  The sharing will enrich your lives.  For truly, each of your stories enlarges and elucidates the other.  We best prepare for the future when we are rooted in the present.  And the anticipation of coming changes can heighten the sweetness of the passing moment.  We work and plan  all week long so that we can enjoy Shabbat.  But even during the week, we take some of the Shabbat spirit with us.  And as a taste of the messianic world to come,  Shabbat helps us to look and labor for a better future.  Shabbat permeates the week.  And the week informs Shabbat.

Ecclesiastes teaches us all: “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.”

So always strive to maintain the ever-shifting balance. 

Do and be.  Plan and Sing.  Look to tomorrow and live for today.”

Again, there was quiet.  Then, for the first time, Ant smiled at Grasshopper.  Grasshopper smiled back at Ant.  And Lady Bug looked fondly at them both.

“Dynamic balance,” said Ant and Grasshopper.  “We hear you.  Thank you.  May we ask just one more question?”

“One more,” replied Lady Bug—for the New Year is coming and I must get to shul!”

“All right,” said the former adversaries.  “We will try to share our stories and learn from one another.  But tell us, how will we know which path to travel at any given time?  When do we look to the future and when do we focus on the present?   How do we decide, day after day, when to work and when to sing?”

“Alas,” noted Lady Bug, here I cannot help you.  That is the challenge of this wisdom, for both God and the devil are in the details.  You will make many mistakes.  You will confuse the proper times and occasions, playing when you should plan, and planning when you should play.  I fail far more often than I succeed, for this paradoxical path is a demanding one.  But it is also beautiful, and I can tell you this: it will go better for both of you if you walk it together.  We all need community. Real truth and wisdom are complex and elusive.  We can only approach and integrate these blessings if we surround ourselves with those who offer loving contradiction.

“Now, if you will excuse me,” concluded Lady Bug, “I must take my leave.  The new year is upon us, with all of its hopes and trials.  But, dear friends, why don’t you come with me?  Ant, I could really use your help in mapping out the aliyahs for the morning.  And Grasshopper, I hear the synagogue choir is in need of another tenor.”

And so they went, planning and singing their way to shul, together.


I have adapted the Ant’s story from various versions of the classic Aesop fable.

The idea for the Grasshopper’s revisionist version comes from a podcast by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson.  The adaption here is my own, though I borrowed Rabbi Artson’s clever use of the phrase, “Patience, Young Grasshopper.” That line dates back to the 1970s television show “Kung Fu,” starring David Carradine as a Shaolin monk who wanders through the American Old West.

You who are lazy. . . from Proverbs 6:6-8.  The somewhat loose translation is my own.

Bloom of the present moment. . . from Henry David Thoreau,  Walden

Wherever You Go, There You Are. . . this mantra that Grasshopper learns from his teacher is the title of a wonderful book by Jon Kabat-Zinn.  That volume is my source for most of Grasshopper’s subsequent lessons

The Eternal makes everything beautiful in its time. . . Ecclesiastes 3.  Most of the book of Ecclesiastes offers this message: make the most of the moment, for everything else is vanity.

This is the day that God has made.  Let us rejoice and be glad in it. . . Psalm 118:24

My whole life, I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted. . .
For more on Henri Nouwen, see the excellent anthology of his writings on living a prayerful life, The Only Necessary Thing

‘Either/or’ may suffice for simple math, but not for life. . . I heard this bit of wisdom from Ms. Biti Roi, who was my teacher of kabbalah at the Hartman Institute during my sabbatical in 2009

Both sides speak the words of the living God. . . From Talmud, Eruvin 13b. It is said that the students of Hillel and the students of Shammai once argued over a point of Jewish law for three years.  Each insisted that they were right.  Finally, a bat kol (heavenly voice) proclaimed: “These and these are the words of the living God.

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